Are the Washington Wizards for real?
After stumbling through a poor start following an underperforming season last year, it seemed the Wizards were headed for another forgettable year. Now they're talking about playoffs and home-court advantage. Twelve straight home wins has Washington a heady 21-19 and thinking big.
This can't be real.
Verizon Center is suddenly an advantage, despite ranking 25th in NBA attendance. After beating Portland, 120-101, Jan. 16, the Wizards matched their longest home win streak since 15 straight in 1989. As in, before many of the players were born.
It used to be the biggest cheers came after the opposing team missed two free throws late to earn free chicken for the crowd. Now, they're supporting Washington in victories with a 17-6 home mark.
"We have a comfort level," Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. "The baskets, everything seems to be good for us. I think our guys are comfortable; they like playing here. We want to make this a special place. … We just have to figure out how we can get some of these wins on the road."
Said guard Bradley Beal: "We want to be a great team at home. We want to have home court when playoff time comes around. These are all things that we're preparing for down the line. It starts with us taking care of our house, and we're doing that -- it's collectively, and it's together."
Playoffs? Washington will be tied for the fifth-best record in the Eastern Conference when it hosts Memphis Jan. 18. But the Wizards are heading on the road starting at New York Jan. 19 in the first of three straight and five of six. There's also a nasty five-game western road trip in early March and later finishing the season with eight of 10 away that will test Washington's postseason worthiness.
But maybe by then, the Wizards will have fine tuned a recent surge fueled by Beal's scoring, forward Kelly Oubre's play off the bench, a better fastbreak offense and an improved defense. Washington is becoming a stronger team mentally in Brooks' first year after being sorely tested at the beginning of the season.
"It's when we want to decide to defend," Beal said, "and we put that effort in collectively, we're a tough team to beat."
Beal's health is finally good after he battled injuries throughout his four-year career. He has already started 36 games, one more than last season. Beal scored 25 points against Portland, his 24th game of 20 points or more. The Wizards are a better team when Beal, and not point guard John Wall, is the leading scorer. At 22.5 points per game, Beal is now slightly behind Wall's 22.9.
"Thank you, Bradley Beal," Oubre said. "He's probably been a big key to that, but that guy works hard. We all work hard on our games. It's good to see a turnaround. In the beginning of the season, it was a little shaky, but now we're starting to get a little full head of steam running."
It may be running all the way into the postseason, because the Wizards' success appears for real.